Taking law to the final frontier

a satellite floating in space above Earth

As satellites and other forms of space exploration proliferate, a new University of Arizona class is preparing students for a burgeoning legal field: space law.

More satellites are being launched into space today than ever before. Capitalizing on this space gold rush, a new course at the University of Arizona is exploring international ground rules to launch students into an emerging legal frontier: space law.

The three-credit course, Space Law and Policy, co-taught by faculty in the James E. Rogers College of Law and the College of Science, introduces students to the law and regulatory issues raised by human activity in outer space, including asteroid mining, space tourism, traffic management, communications satellites and national security.

"Space is a growth area, and there aren't enough people who understand both the law and the science of this new frontier," said Andrew Keane Woods, Milton O. Riepe Professor of Law and Distinguished Legal Scholar who teaches the legal part of the course. "There is a lot of new space activity – new launches, new satellites – that raise many corresponding law and policy questions."

a person looking through a large white telescope while another person reaches toward the telescope to assist

Professor Vishnu Reddy and third-year law student Chelsea Hintgen take to the telescopes on the University of Arizona Mall as part of the Space Law and Policy course.

Building on the university's strengths in astronomy and space exploration, planetary sciences professor Vishnu Reddy teaches the other half of the course. He focuses on fundamental space concepts, the history of space exploration, the moon and asteroids, incorporating hands-on laboratory experiences and night sky observations.

"Nations and companies will be launching more missions into space," said Reddy, who also is director of the UArizona Space4 Center. "With that environment becoming more crowded and busier with orbiting commerce, exploration and military objects, there is an increasing need to understand both the legal and regulatory landscape of space and, along with that, the basic science of space."

"This way, a treaty that describes how something moves in orbit, for example, resonates with the students," Reddy added. "It isn't science fiction."

The inaugural course, offered by College of Law, includes law students and an undergraduate student majoring in astronomy.

"I'm a big space nerd," said Andrew Macdonald, a third-year law school student with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering who is enrolled in the course. "I have a fascination with science. When I saw the space law class, I didn't think that was a thing. It's a crossover of hard science and existing law that is old and the potential emergence of new law."

After the semester ends, Woods and Reddy will explore adapting the material as a crash course for executives and other professionals working in the space industry.

New wave of lunar exploration

Cislunar space – the orbital space between Earth and the moon – is becoming increasingly dynamic with humanmade space objects and debris such as spent rocket bodies. Nations and private industry are launching more satellites and payloads in a quest to put humans back on the moon for the first time since 1972. Every mission adds more objects and debris to the approximately 23,000 cataloged objects orbiting Earth and the few dozens of payloads orbiting the moon.

Payloads launched into cislunar orbit are mostly self-reported, and they are not monitored by a central international agency. Reddy and his colleague Roberto Furfaro, professor of systems and industrial engineering, are creating cyberinfrastructure to characterize and identify the objects, paving the way for a well-organized path to the moon and improved national security.

Six countries and several commercial companies have plans for more than 100 moon missions over the next decade. In this new wave of lunar exploration, Woods saw a gap.

"There was a burst of interest in space law and policy at a theoretical level by serious legal academics in the 1960s and 1970s with the first space race, but then it really dropped off," said Woods, whose research has focused on regulation of the internet, which, like space is considered a global common good. "The Space Age continues, yet the legal scholarship in the U.S. hasn't kept up."

Five major space treaties, signed by spacefaring nations since the 1960s, provide a framework for liability, territorial sovereignty in space and other legal questions. But they don't directly address newer issues such as asteroid mining, armed retaliation for a space collision, or how rules developed for governments apply to private industry. 

A host of domestic regulations that space lawyers also must understand cascade from the international treaties, Woods said. Private industry or government agencies like the new Space Force will increasingly need experts who can navigate the international treaties and oversee contracting, Woods said. 

A powerhouse in space

Space law is not new to the university. The College of Law hosted a 2022 conference with panel discussions on international agreements governing space and the business of space and a keynote by Alexander MacDonald, chief economist at NASA.

UArizona space sciences activities generate $560.5 million yearly – nearly as much money for the local economy every year as the 2023 Super Bowl was estimated to bring to Arizona. 

Primarily based out of the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory and the Department of Planetary Sciences and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, space sciences have been an integral part of the university for more than 100 years. 

The university has ranked No. 1 in astronomy and astrophysics research expenditures each year since 1987, according to National Science Foundation data, and is ranked No. 6 in NASA-funded activity. Recent examples of UArizona achievements in space sciences include the university-led NASA OSIRIS-REx mission, which successfully collected a sample from near-Earth asteroid Bennu, returning it to Earth in September, and the integral roles that Regents Professors of Astronomy Marcia Rieke and George Rieke have played in the James Webb Space Telescope

UArizona also operates more than a dozen telescopes across the state and helped build and operate observatories in Chile, Antarctica and outer space. On campus, Steward Observatory's Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab is fabricating the enormous primary mirror segments for the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile.

"If you're interested in space law, the University of Arizona is a no-brainer," Woods said. "I'm not aware of another space law program that combines such a strong space sciences program and such a strong law school."

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